As the nation prepares to inaugurate its president, this is a good time to contemplate the two meanings of the word “dumb.”
Republicans seem to have the greater claim to the colloquial meaning of the word, as in “stupid.”
They ran a presidential campaign single-mindedly devoted to moaning about an economy that was, in fact, gradually improving. And their candidate had two crucial opportunities to elevate the debate — but passed on both of them.
First, after choosing a running mate whose major virtue was his courage to address the most serious issue facing the country, the debt crisis, Mitt Romney refused to give this grave matter center stage. Instead he promoted a tax plan so implausible as to sacrifice any claim that Romney-Ryan might have had to being the more fiscally responsible team.
Next, he failed to properly manage the great crisis of his campaign. After being caught depicting 47 percent of the voters in crude and patronizing terms, Romney brushed the remark off and made no serious attempt to explain himself. What he should have said is that there is something amiss when so many Americans pay no income tax and are excessively dependent on the government.
Since Romney’s defeat, his party has relentlessly followed the misguided path he blazed. It threatened to send the nation over the fiscal cliff in order to keep the rich from paying more taxes. Its House contingent embarrassed its leader by refusing to pass his debt plan — which was, in fact, less obnoxious to them than the one they were ultimately forced to accept.
Republicans now threaten to force either bankruptcy or untenable budget cuts rather than raise the debt ceiling. By refusing to consider closing tax loopholes to raise additional funds, they pretend that the nation’s fiscal woes can be solved without substantial increases in revenue.
And then there’s the other meaning of the word “dumb”: “mute.” Enter the Democrats.
In a time of crisis, silence can be as destructive as stupidity. And when it comes to the serious issues of entitlement reform and deficit reduction, President Barack Obama says nothing. He simply refuses to acknowledge that the nation is facing an entitlement-induced catastrophe. What voice he does have, he devotes to endorsing tax hikes on the rich, an idea that may have merit but offers no hope of getting the runaway train of entitlement overspending back on track.
Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security already consume more than 40 percent of federal spending. Since 2009, the Medicare trust fund has had to pay out more money than it received. At current spending rates, it will be exhausted by 2016. According to the same projections, the Social Security trust fund will be exhausted by 2033.
Health spending and longevity continue to rise at rates far in excess of economic growth, and so the amount of the nation’s wealth devoted to health care and old-age pensions will also continue to rise. The General Accountability Office reports that in 2011 about 7,600 Americans turned 65 every day. It projects that number to rise to 11,400 a day by 2029.
These breathtaking numbers would make almost anyone speechless. But a president has no such option. He must offer guidance on how to avoid this fiscal precipice.
Because of his silence, it’s impossible to tell what Obama really believes should happen to alter the trajectory of Medicare and Social Security spending. Perhaps he dreams of imposing 75 percent taxes on the wealthy, as the president of France has tried to do? Or maybe he really does understand that the only way to sustain Medicare and Social Security at their present levels is to impose draconian taxes on the middle class? Or to drain the rest of the federal budget of its capacity to do all the other things the public counts on government to do?
One hopes that President Obama is not also deaf — that the strong and eloquent voices calling for budgetary stringency and entitlement reform are catching his ear. Former Clinton White House chief of staff Erskine Bowles and former Republican Senator Alan Simpson, who were appointed by Obama to head the effort to reduce the national debt, are now leading Fix the Debt, an organization devoted to meaningful budget reform including major restructuring of entitlements. Its members include mayors, governors and prominent members of the business community.
In his upcoming inauguration, Obama will address hundreds of millions of people. His speech will undoubtedly be well phrased and well delivered. But presidential rhetoric, even eloquent presidential rhetoric, is mere noise if it does not educate. He should not waste this unique opportunity by simply telling his followers what they want to hear — that those who look to government for help will find his administration receptive and generous. He must emulate Abraham Lincoln and use his Second Inaugural to tell the people what they need to hear. He needs to speak — loudly and clearly — about the sacrifices we will all be called upon to make to restore the nation to fiscal sanity.